Civil War documentation, such as letters, diaries and memoirs, frequently surface after being forgotten over the past 150 years in trunks, attics and official archives. Such is the case for the collection Peter Wellington Alexander produced during his career as a newspaper correspondent.
Alexander began to serve as a reporter for the Savannah Republican and other Southern newspapers soon after the North-South conflict began in 1861. William B. Styple discovered Alexander’s letters, documents, scrapbooks and manuscripts in Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and edited/published selected items in “Writing & Fighting the Confederate War: The Letters of Peter Wellington Alexander, Confederate War Correspondent” in 2002.
Earlier in his life, Alexander was a lawyer turned editor-in-chief of the Savannah Republican, until overwork compelled him to give up the editorship. Although an anti-secessionist, he became a Virginia correspondent for his newspaper soon after the war began, and normally signed his dispatches with his initials “P.W.A.”
After arriving in Virginia, he wrote “The Old Dominion is one vast camp,” with trains transporting Rebel troops to Richmond from many other Southern states. He cautioned that he could not provide details of military operations, because “secrecy is one of the chief elements of military success.”
P.W.A. was present at the first major battle at Manassas, Va., in July 1861, and reported on “Shiloh” in Tennessee in April 1862. He witnessed the Second Battle of Manassas in August 1862, and followed Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland where, on Sept. 17, the bloodiest single day of the war took place at Antietam, with nearly 23,000 casualties.
Alexander accompanied Lee’s army on the march from Fredericksburg, Va., to Pennsylvania in June/July 1863. He had arrived from Richmond on June 2, the day before the Rebel army began its march northward, and reported Lee’s army to be in excellent condition and spirits, and that Lee had predicted, “If I can but get at [the enemy] with my infantry, all will be well.”
Following a Union surprise attack on Rebel cavalry under Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart at Brandy Station near Culpeper, Va., on June 9, 1863, Alexander wrote that Stuart was caught off-guard, and claimed that the superior fighting qualities of his men saved Stuart from “defeat and disgrace.” P.W.A. continued to report disparagingly about Stuart, evidently in order to have him replaced as cavalry commander.
On June 28, 1863, Alexander described Lee’s march northward: “Gen. Lee put his army in motion. … He passed swiftly and secretly along the foot of the Blue Ridge … crossed the Shenandoah [River], captured Winchester, swept rapidly down the Valley of Virginia to the Potomac, and launched his army into Maryland and Pennsylvania.”
After reporting that Maj. Gen. George G. Meade had replaced Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker as commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, P.W.A. had the unpleasant duty of explaining to his readers how Lee had suffered a crushing defeat at a small community in south central Pennsylvania called Gettysburg. He wrote:
“There are certain well known conditions upon which alone an invasion can be successful. The invader must have an army twice as numerous as that of the invaded country; or … it must make up by its superior courage and genius what it lacks in numbers. He must have also a firmly established base of supplies … food, forage, animals and clothing … and … ammunition…. We possessed none of these elements of a successful invasion, except the superior courage and fighting qualities of our troops.”
Regarding Stuart, P.W.A. claimed, “The Confederate cavalry, which, with few exceptions, is regarded with little favor either by the enemy or ourselves, made but slight resistance, and soon fled the field.”
In truth, it was Stuart and his cavalry that saved Lee’s army from further, and potentially permanent, defeat during the retreat from Gettysburg back to Virginia.
Alexander continued to report on the war from the field until the end came in June 1865. Although he intended to write a history of his personal experiences and perspective, he did not complete it before death came in 1886. William Styple surmised “perhaps, it was a subject too painful to revisit, or more simply, life got in the way.”
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website www.tomryan-civilwar.com.